Master Ji: The Artisan With Dye Stained Fingers

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This is Jagdish, but we (and everyone else in the blockprinting workshop) call him Master Ji. As is common in the Indian culture, adding ‘Ji’ conveys a sign of respect and it’s an endearment given to the person by those around them. Master Ji is a fourth generation artisan, and a master blockprinter and dyer with 20 years of experience. Coming from a family of printers, it was only natural that he started learning blockprinting with all three of his brothers. Years in, he then decided he wanted to learn dyeing. Now, his brother is also a master dyer and the whole family eventually moved towards learning this new craft as well.

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Our second day in the blockprinting workshop, we were trying to figure out the right shade of blue for the Mobi Indigo by memory. Four of us standing there with the blockprinters, sifting through Pantone colour codes. It took us half an hour to find the card that best matched our recollection of the shade, and when we showed it to Master Ji for reference, he took one quick look, smiled, nodded, and rushed off into the dyeing room immediately. Watching him work is like playing catch up; one moment he’s mixing buckets of dye, then he’s at the other side of the workshop printing a motif on a small piece of fabric, back in the dye room steaming the swatch in a bottle over a stove, and then rushing to the stairwell outside to hang the fabric to dry under the heat of the sun.

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It took us 30 minutes to find the right blue with ready swatch cards. But it took him just one look and one try to recreate that same indigo with impeccable accuracy.

Master Ji is one of the first in the blockprinting workshop in the mornings, preparing the dyes for the printers and checking the colour on fabrics printed the day before. Every morning when we stepped into the workshop, we would exchange “Shubh Prabhat”s (Hindi for good morning), and Master Ji would look up from what he was working on to smile, nod, and raise his colourful dye-stained fingers in recognition.

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We quickly learned that he is the only one in the workshop, apart from Khushiram (our fifth generation artisan partner), who can print all of our motifs with ease. When we were in Jaipur, we were working on a series of 3 new prints for an upcoming collaboration. The process to move from a digital design to a print carved onto a block holds a lot more complexity than it might seem – something we didn’t fully understand until we were there to see it in actuality. Pinning down guidelines on the fabric took nearly an hour, and then came marking out etches of where the blocks would repeat. Being there and seeing the whole process made us realize the difficulty and complexity of it all.

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To translate a motif from digital to craft is to understand that industrial perfection does not exist in craft – and more importantly, it should not.

Each motif took 3-4 hours of thinking and testing to figure out how to fully lay the block and arrange it. When we asked Khushiram if this length of time was typical of their process with other prints, he laughed and said “No. Only MATTER blocks.” He told us that our blocks are challenging because they are not traditional, but the challenge is also what they love. Then Khushiram quipped, “But maybe the next print can be easier.” And Master Ji nodded and laughed in agreement.

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Towards the end of our time in Jaipur, familiarity and rapport sat comfortably in the space of the blockprinting workshop. We were taking our first chai break of the day when Master Ji took his phone out and showed us a photo of his wife, then another of his children. We asked if he would teach his children how to blockprint and dye, and he looked at us nodding and smiling, in the way he always does, and says yes. He wants to pass the craft to them, and he hopes they would continue this tradition too.

Read our other articles on our artisan partners here.

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